Hammer, the studio synonymous with Horror in the 1950s and ’60s with classics like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958) and countless more opened its doors again to terrify a whole new generation of audiences. Its chosen subject; The Woman in Black a popular horror novella written by author Susan Hill in 1983, well known for scaring multitudes of readers with its ghostly subject matter. If that wasn’t enough it happened to be the first post-Potter film for Daniel Radcliffe and this had people turning out in droves to see if the film would triumph or sink.
The Woman in Black novella is a chilling read, perfect for October, read after dark at your own risk. It has been written in the style of a traditional Gothic Horror piece and certainly delivers. The movie has been adapted by Jane Goldman who has previous success with screenplays for Stardust (2007), Kick Ass (2010) and X-Men: First Class (2011). There are small changes made but the premise remains the same. A young father and widower Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) is sent by his London firm to order the affairs and paperwork for the selling of Eel Marsh House an estate in a small country village. On the train, he befriends a native of the village Sam Daily, but on his arrival at the inn, he receives a very cold reception. Everyone he meets in the town is hostile and wary of his presence, it is obvious more is going on here than meets the eye; a town secret they intend to keep. Nobody seems keen on Kipps getting to Eel Marsh house, but determined he pays to be taken across the remote causeway that cuts the estate off from the rest of the world by a changing tide and dangerous marshland.
The house itself is in a state of disrepair, depressing and haunting its isolation makes it an ominous place to be left alone. Once inside Arthur starts his work only to be stopped by strange noises around the house, through the window he sees the figure of a woman in black in the grounds, when he looks back she has disappeared. He hears voices in distress out in the mist of the causeway, searching he sees nothing until suddenly his driver appears through the fog. The longer Arthur stays in the town the more distressed the villagers become and tragic things begin to occur. Everyone’s worst fears are realised but Kipps is still fairly in the dark about the house and its inhabitant.
He finally learns about the woman in black, a mentally unstable woman who lost her son in the marsh and vows to seek vengeance. Her victims; the children of the town, her child was taken from her so she will take the children of others. It is now clear why the town was so adamant against Arthur’s coming, they knew that he would glimpse the ghostly vision and one of their children would die a violent death. Arthur attempts to rid the town of its ghostly burden enabling him to return home to his son.
Daniel Radcliffe is surprisingly good as Arthur Kipps, there is no hint of the bespectacled boy wizard and he is thoroughly believable as a young dad. More impressive though was his portrayal of loss and dealing with that pain. He is a man not dealing with his grief but drowning in it, he is not with the living but stuck in a past that he cannot get back to, this is painfully apparent to his young four-year-old son, who can see quite clearly his father’s distance and unhappiness. This link to death already for the young father is I feel what keeps him in the house despite what he knows and sees of the violent occupant; a morbid curiosity about life after death. The supporting cast; mainly Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer as the Daily’s; a couple in their own state of grief and denial are vital to the realism and believability of the film. They are fundamental to creating the world that the audience is visiting, with horror especially it is important to believe the characters are real and down to earth. Without that, you cannot invest in them, and if you do not care about the characters the scares lose their edge.
The cinematography, lighting and set design, in particular, remind me of another great British horror film; The Innocents (1961). Like that film, the look of this feature is so important to the atmosphere which is being created, and the film-makers were incredibly thorough. The sets immediately bring to life the gothic atmosphere felt in the novella and the period dressing immediately transports you to the Victorian era. The lighting here is critical to creating the best scares, however, they are not that obvious in design. Like The Innocents, a lot of the structure of the film is the build of tension and suspense in the audience; administering the thrills only when least expected. There are numerous dark over the shoulder shots, where you assume something is going to appear, but cleverly director Watkins chooses these moments to simply build the suspense, leaving the audience to simmer over a scare that is overdrawn in its appearance. Suddenly when you least expect it, the scare is delivered. This technique is used to great success throughout. An integral part of any horror picture is the music and with The Woman in Black there is no exception, the tone is chilling, ghostly children’s music boxes added to an eerie score. This sets the mood for the entire film.
There is a bitter-sweet ending to The Woman in Black without giving anything away, it is a shock for those expecting a resolved ending. However, I think the final scene is acceptable due to the protagonists’ disposition from the beginning. The Woman in Black overall is a very effective modern horror film, creating an entertaining and thrilling atmosphere, perfect for October with Halloween so close.